Sunday, June 1, 2008

Dictation, by Cynthia Ozick

A Review of Cynthia Ozick’s Dictation

Originally published in the Rain Taxi Review of Books, Summer 2008

By Cynthia Ozick
Houghton Mifflin ($24)

“I was certain now that no word Essie uttered could be trusted,” writes Phyllis, the narrator of “What Happened to the Baby?,” the final story in Cynthia Ozick’s radiant new quartet of fictions, Dictation. Lies, illusion, deception, self-deception, imposture, playacting—these are the subjects of the collection’s varied inventions, forming what the untrustworthy Essie calls “the universal language we all speak.”

Ozick’s first novel was entitled Trust, and the incessant breaking of trust has shaped the core of much of her life’s work, both in subject matter and in literary technique. At times Ozick’s trickeries can be read as cautionary tales, as in her early novella “An Education,” but more often she revels in the falsehoods that the word and the mind can play on each other. In a note pointing out the historical inaccuracies of Dictation’s title story, Ozick writes, “Never mind, says Fiction; what fun, laughs Transgression; so what? mocks Dream?” And like almost no other writer of her generation, Ozick cons us with lies and truths that are as pleasurably interchangeable as are the holy and the satanic.

In the collection’s second story, “Actors,” Matt Sorley (an Anglicized stage name for the Sephardic Mose Sadacca) muses, “What is acting if not lying? A good actor is a good imposter. A consummate actor is a consummate deceiver. Or put it otherwise: an actor is someone who falls into the deeps of self-forgetfulness. Or still otherwise: an actor is a puppeteer, with himself as a puppet.” Like her character Matt, Ozick is an expert puppetmaster, constantly observing and recreating the angle of a character’s posture, the pause of a glance, or the sweep of a hand through the hair. Also like Matt, Ozick can seem to fall into deep self-forgetfulness (see “Tradition and the Jewish Writer” in her latest essay collection, The Din in the Head), but she never loses control of the strings that govern her own writing hand, and as Matt falls into the most earnest of self-delusions, Ozick haunts him with the seemingly written-off specters of his own trade and tradition.

With nearly Tolstoyan keenness (and Yahwist power), Ozick fills her characters with breath and passion and nuance, and her prose and pacing are at once extraordinarily lush and breathlessly pithy. In the collection’s title story, Henry James’ amanuensis, Theodora Bosanquet, observes her victim/accomplice in literary crime, Joseph Conrad’s own amanuensis, Lilian Hallowes, with the eye of a master novelist herself. After watching her fix the loose bun in her wet hair, Miss Bosanquet envisions Miss Hallowes first as a mermaid cast upon solid ground and then as a peasant-girl model for an artist’s Madonna, noting that “[her eyes]…were too small, and the lobes of her nostrils too fleshy, but standing there, with her hands lifted to the back of her neck, and looking all around, as if under the ceiling of some great cathedral, she seemed dutiful and unguarded and glowingly virginal.” With deliberate and delicious cunning, this apparent virginity is soon beautifully violated and prostituted.

In perhaps the collection’s finest and most heart-wrenching story, “At Fumicaro” (which was first collected in the 1996 A Cynthia Ozick Reader and which has only increased in potency over the years), Ozick takes on the self-deceptions of Catholicism, which circle in around the self-appointed pilgrim/martyr Frank Castle as a lifelong noose of penance. Describing (and circumscribing) the constantly shifting angles of Castle’s viewpoints, Ozick painfully and gorgeously leads us through the protagonist’s inexorable stations as he seduces and is seduced by an Italian peasant girl whom he ultimately marries amid an endless spume of dubiously authentic gods and saints and saviors.

Ozick can be as cruel and devious and damning as any of her characters, but her writing also fills the reader with “Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love” (the working title of her first, abandoned novel). We are all deceivers and the deceived, and yet the “universal language” that Ozick employs in this collection allows us insight into the inner truths, both lovely and grotesque, that illuminate our hearts of darkness. The world and its endless hall of mirrors may be nothing but lies, but, as Transgression laughs, “what fun!”

—David Wiley